Nature Writing and Understanding

Espeletia hartwegiana, a Frailejon "tree".

A daisy that grows as tall as a tree. I was delighted to see this description when I read “High Above Sea Level, Evolutionary Hot Spots” by Carl Zimmer in the New York Times.

The plant, called Frailejón, though in the same family as daisies, doesn’t look like our common flower. It is a quite fantastic form of life in a unique ecosystem called the Páramos, grasslands at high altitudes in the Andes. Zimmer writes about how much scientists are learning about evolution in the unusual conditions of these mountain highlands. This reminded me of Rachel Carson’s belief, which I wrote about in my last post (Nature Writing’s Role in Conservation), that natural history is an important way of understanding the world.

Our world is full of distinctive areas that have been carved out over millions of years by the processes of geology, hydrology, atmosphere and climate, and biological evolution. We have so much to learn in all of them–but not only from scientific investigations.

We are of this earth and all of its places contain our story along with that of the earth itself and all its living beings. Those stories are vital to us in knowing who we are, how we have lived and how we may live in the future, and our relationship with our home, the earth. There are meanings to be found in the far-flung reaches of the earth, as well as right next door to us.

Observing the animals and plants, we learn how they combine with the physical earth to create the history of life and all its possibilities–our possibilities as humans as well as of all our fellow creatures. These are the possibilities that fire our imaginations and give our lives the forms from which we draw meaning and purpose. And these imaginative forms are where our art and literature and philosophy ultimately originate.

Learning from these earth places is a collective enterprise of humanity. We all know our own spaces but we cannot visit all corners of the globe. Remote landscapes like the Páramos most of us will never see.

This is where nature writing comes in. It can vividly transport us to these lands we otherwise would not know. In fact, in his article, Carl Zimmer calls upon an early nature writer, the European explorer Alexander von Humboldt to introduce us to the Páramos. Von Humboldt, part explorer, part traveler, part scientist, part imperialist, climbed to the Páramos over 200 years ago. His written descriptions of the nature he observed there inspired interest in these high mountain grasslands that still reverberates today.

I looked up the passage from von Humboldt that Zimmer briefly quotes and found myself experiencing the Páramos, seeing the Frailejón and the other plants that von Humboldt cataloged, feeling the dampness in the misty air, seeing the Andean Condor soar overhead:

We were sometimes so enveloped in mist, that we could not, without difficulty, find our way. At this height there is no path, and we were obliged to climb with our hands, when our feet failed us, on the steep and slippery acclivity. A vein filled with porcelain-clay attracted our attention. It is of snowy whiteness, and no doubt the remains of a decomposed feldspar.

…Every time that the clouds surrounded us, the thermometer sunk as low as 12 degrees; with a serene sky it rose to 21 degrees. These observations were made in the shade. But it is difficult, on such rapid declivities, covered with a dry, shining, yellow turf, to avoid the effects of radiant heat. We were at nine hundred and forty toises of elevation; and yet at the same height, towards the east, we perceived in a ravine, not merely a few solitary palm-trees, but a whole grove. It was the palma real; probably a species of the genus Oreodoxa. This group of palms, at so considerable an elevation, formed a striking contrast with the willows scattered on the depth of the more temperate valley of Caracas. We here discovered plants of European forms, situated below those of the torrid zone.

After proceeding for the space of four hours across the savannahs, we entered a little wood composed of shrubs and small trees, called el Pejual; doubtless from the great abundance here of the pejoa, a plant with very odoriferous leaves. The steepness of the mountain became less considerable and we felt an indescribable pleasure in examing the plants of this region.

Nowhere, perhaps can be found collected together, in so small a space, productions so beautiful, and so remarkable in regard to the geography of plants. At the height of a thousand toises, the lofty savannahs of the hills terminate in a zone of shrubs which, by their appearance, their tortuous branches, their stiff leaves, and the magnitude and beauty of their purple flowers, remind us of what is called, in the Cordilleras of the Andes, the vegetation of the paramos and the punas. We there find the family of the alpine rhododendrons, the thibaudias, the andromedas, the vacciniums, and those befarias with resinous leaves…”

–Vicki Linton

Photo credit: Dick Culbert at Flickr Creative Commons

Text of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narratives of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America can be found at Google books. http://books.google.com/books

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